The Dark Side of Electronic Communication

Individuals and organizations alike still rely on electronic mail (e-mail) as a primary communication tool to conduct business. A 2003 study, still relevant by today’s standards, by associate professors Raymond Friedman and Steven Currall, caution about using e-mail to resolve conflicts. While they do not specifically mention it, using other media for the same purpose should also give one pause. 

Based on their review of sociological literature, the authors suggest that escalation of disputes is more likely during electronic communication than during face-to-face conversation. They also recommend a number of ways to ameliorate the risk of escalation, concluding with a call for additional empirical research into e-mail’s impact on conflict management.

The authors define the following properties as present in face-to-face communication:

  • Co-presence (parties are in the same surroundings)
  • Visibility (parties see one another)
  • Audibility (parties hear speech timing and intonation)
  • Cotemporality (parties receive utterances as they are produced)
  • Simultaneity (parties send and receive messages at once)
  • Sequentiality (parties take turns)

It is easy to see how each property enables communicators to “ground” the interaction. In other words, they are able to achieve a shared understanding about the encounter and a shared sense of participation. They also allow participants to time and adjust their actions and reactions so as to move toward agreement. Grounding, timing, and adjusting are all critically important tools in successful conflict resolution.

In looking at e-mail communication, the authors state that e-mail exchanges take place in an antisocial context (participants are isolated at their computers), allow new tactics (such as lengthy messages or communications that bundle multiple arguments together) and are characterized by reviewability and revisability (communicators are able to re-read received messages and extensively shape their responses).

These properties, as well as the lack of those that are unique to face-to-face conversation, engender the following effects (which Friedman and Currall claim increase the risk of escalation during conflict processing):

  • Low feedback. Electronic communication generates little feedback such as clues about how a recipient is reacting to one’s message. As a result, participants cannot fluidly adjust their comments to repair missteps or clarify misunderstandings. Inadvertent insults and loss of face become more likely, and misunderstandings accumulate. Also, recipients can often perceive communication tactics as “heavier” than intended. This causes social bonds to weaken and the involved parties find it more difficult to resolve conflicts.
  • Reduced social cues. E-mail communication lacks the emotional expression found in face-to-face conversations; therefore, the parties rely more on the messages’ cognitive content to manage conflict. In addition, although e-mail participants often include greetings and other forms of “social lubrication” in their messages, the power of such rituals to remind people of social norms and rules declines significantly the longer the delay between message exchanges. When long delays exist, message recipients may respond in socially inappropriate ways – aggressively or not empathetically.
  • Length of messages. When a sender bundles multiple arguments in a lengthy e-mail message, the recipient may forget to respond to one or more arguments in the reply. Moreover, in crafting a response, the recipient may focus only on those arguments that he or she found most upsetting. When a sender believes that the recipient has ignored parts of the message, the sender may suspect a violation of interaction norms. Misunderstandings can accumulate, and inadvertent insults can become more likely.
  • Excess attention. Thanks to the properties of reviewability and revisability, online communicators can ruminate at length about received messages. Research suggests that rumination increases both angry mood and perceptions of a problem’s magnitude. Reviewability and revisability also permit elaborate editing of messages, which increases composers’ commitment to their arguments. The parties become less willing to compromise, begin depersonalizing one another and view the conflict as unresolvable.

The conclusions? Use face-to-face conversations or phone calls to discuss disputes. If e-mail cannot be avoided, then consider that the perceived insult may have been unintentional. Finally, the authors suggest that e-mail users can and should manage risk to resolve conflicts more productively.

The Value of Analysis Done Right

Recently, I “re-discovered” that analytical skills are not common. In fact, a recent assignment demonstrated that many people tend to skim the surface and propose recommendations without doing the necessary analytical work.

Now, this may sound like a really good thing – why go through all the trouble of analyzing when you know what needs doing? The way I see it, there are several problems with this approach.

The first problem is that providing recommendations without investigation and evidence will result in “band aid” solutions. What organization wants to mop up the spill without finding and fixing the leak?  

The second problem is that without an examination and explanation of the situation, there is a lack of clarity about what constitutes a problem. Even more important, the root cause of the problem may be missing. 

The third problem is that recommendations built on instinct are not valid. While your judgment may be accurate, not everyone thinks like you do. That is why careful examination and explanation of the situation is required to draw meaningful recommendations.  

Applying analytical thought requires one to look at a situation objectively. Analysis goes beyond describing what is occurring (many people are good at this part). It provides both an examination and explanation of the situation. And examinations and explanations require asking and answering several questions about the situation. The most common question is “why.” 

There are several ways to conduct an analysis, but here are a few simple steps that can help you “collect” your thoughts for easier review. The steps also provide a basis for solid analysis.

  1. Collect data about the situation and place it in an “issues template.” A spreadsheet is useful for this purpose.  
    1. Give your template four headings: Issue, Possible Causes, Other Relationships and Impacts, Possible Resolutions.
    2. Based on your data, list all the issues you uncover under the “issue” column. When completed, start “analyzing” one issue at a time and complete the related columns for that issue – i.e., possible causes, other relationships and impacts, and possible resolutions.
    3. Group your issues into major categories, as appropriate. (You may have main issues and sub-issues).
  2. Using your “issues template,” examine and explain the following (this will comprise your report).
    1.  Situation. Discuss the situation where the issue exists. Use evidence from your data to support your discussion about the situation(s).
    2. Relationships and Impacts. Based on the situation discussion, include possible relationships and impacts that are influencing the situation. As well, discuss how the situation is impacting (or potentially impacting) other areas of the organization.
    3. Needs/Recommendations. Based on your discussion of the above and taking into consideration possible causes and possible resolutions for the issue, discuss what needs to happen in the organization to correct the issue.

If you are able to support your recommendations with evidence from your analysis, then it is easier to convince readers that your recommendations are valid. In the words of Edward Deming, “In God we trust, but for everything else, bring data.”

Government Spending: A Cause of Inefficiency

We often hear that government is inefficient:  They spend too much, they take too much time to provide services, they do not provide quality services, they have too many checkpoints, and so on. But who or what is government? Are employees not the heart of any organization?

Contrary to popular belief, employee performance is not the problem when it comes to efficiency. There are many very industrious and efficient employees in any industry, including government.

The root of inefficiency in government relates to money. More specifically, because governments do not spend their own money, inefficiency can be a serious problem.

To put this into perspective, think about these four possible scenarios relating to spending money (source: Milton Friedman, Free to Choose) (a matrix is also provided):

  1. You spend your own money on yourself. When you spend your own money on yourself, you take care with your money, trying to get the best deal (best quality for least cost).
  2. You spend your own money on somebody else. When you spend your money on somebody else, you still take care to spend the least amount of money, but you are not as concerned about the quality of the product or service. For example: buying gifts for someone else.
  3. You spend somebody else’s money on yourself. When you spend somebody else’s money on yourself, your primary concern is to get the best quality. Money really is no object. For example: buying yourself a gift or enjoying dinner on “somebody else’s dime.”
  4. You spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. When you have somebody else’s money to spend on others, concern for quantity of spending and quality of product and service is not a high consideration. This is the situation with government spending.

Now put yourself in government’s shoes. If you have an almost unlimited supply of someone else’s (i.e., taxpayer) money each year, how will you spend it? Will you really give your systems and processes the due care that you would if you were spending your own money?

Unlike private organizations that spend money on goods and services that the market values, government spending has no information value. That is, organizations that spend to meet market demand will create a profit – this is the value that the organization generates. If it stops generating value for its customers, it stops making money.

In government, no matter how much money is spent and no matter how much output is produced, government does not know the value of its output. This contributes to a cycle of inefficiency in spending and outputs.

When was the last time your government told you how well they spent your money?

While pockets of government departments do forge ahead with implementing efficiency measures, there is generally no check on government efficiency. Governments are inefficient because they can be.

Solving Problems using an A3

An “A3” is an international size piece of paper, approximately 11-by-17 inches. Using an A3 is an effective way to present a situation – a story that anyone can understand – all on one page. 

It is a visual tool for problem-solving because it presents all of the main elements in a condensed space, allowing for on-the-spot review. It is a powerful management process encouraging learning through a scientific approach to problem solving. It includes a description of the current conditions, goals, analysis, and an action plan for implementing solutions.

There is no standard format for an A3. Each A3 suits the situation. At the end of this blog, a detailed example is provided that you can use and modify to suit your organization’s situation.

Regardless of format, A3’s answer the same basic questions:

  1. What is the problem or issue?
  2. Who owns the problem?
  3. What is/are the root cause(s) of the problem?
  4. What are some possible countermeasures?
  5. How will you decide which countermeasures to propose?
  6. How will you get agreement from everyone concerned?
  7. What is your implementation plan – who, what, when, where, how?
  8. How will you know if your countermeasures work?
  9. What follow-up issues can you anticipate? What problems may occur during implementation?
  10. How will you capture and share the learning?

The key to using the A3 and, in fact, to any approach in problem solving is defining the problem. As Charles F. Kettering, inventor, said: “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” Too many times, people start “fixing” symptoms of problems rather than the actual problem. This never achieves the desired long-term results.

In its simplest form, a problem is a barrier that prevents the organization from achieving its goals. A problem may also involve the design or performance of work.

The gap between the existing and desired condition is the problem. Achieving performance improvement occurs through understanding of the gap.

At its core, an A3 template helps solve problems by describing the following:

  • Background or context of the problem
  • Current conditions including facts and data about the problem
  • Goal that the organization wishes to achieve in addressing the problem
  • Analysis of the problem to describe why the problem exists
  • Recommendations for how to address the problem
  • Plan for implementing the recommendations
  • Follow-up after implementation to ensure continuous improvement

The A3 is also useful for describing action items – a condensed project charter for each item covering one or two 11-by-17 inch sheets instead of multiple letter-sized typed pages.

Once you start using the A3 format to assess your organization’s problem areas, there’s a good chance that you will never go back to using traditional methods.

Changing Behaviour by Changing Situations

You’ve probably heard it before: “He’s so stubborn.” “She won’t listen.” “They just don’t seem to get how this new product will help them with their work.” “They’re so negative.” When dealing with those who resist change, this innuendo is familiar. 

But it may surprise you to learn that people are not always the problem when there is resistance to change. In fact, more frequently, the situation, not the person, is the common cause.

In their book Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath explain this phenomenon succinctly. A study about eating habits included free popcorn to moviegoers. Either large or medium sized buckets were distributed. With portion sizes being intentionally large, individuals could not eat all of the popcorn. In addition, the popcorn was stale – popped five days ago.

The researchers hypothesized that people with bigger buckets would eat more popcorn. Their hypothesis was correct. The bigger eaters were those with the bigger buckets. In fact, they ate 53 percent more!

Viewing the data without knowing the difference in bucket sizes, you might easily conclude that 53 percent of moviegoers eat a lot of popcorn. Or that popcorn intake is 53 percent higher at movie theatres than other venues, and so on. You may even start thinking about ways to motivate these gluttons to change to healthier ways of eating. 

Notice that as we jump to conclusions, we immediately think about how to change the person or the person’s behaviour. And we don’t usually delve into the situation to understand what caused the behaviour in the first place.  

In this experiment, we know that the bucket size contributed to the amount of popcorn eaten. Therefore, change the situation and you change the behaviour: Change the bucket size and people will eat less popcorn. How easy is that? 

When one changes the situation, there is no need to act on the individual, to motivate or cajole them into changing their behaviour. The new situation allows the individual to change their behaviour without, perhaps, even knowing that they’ve changed. 

Next time you face resistance to change, look at the environment. What situation can you change to positively affect a desired outcome? The solution may be as easy as changing bucket sizes.

Kaizen to the Rescue

Successful organizational improvement initiatives depend on successful follow-up and maintenance. To this end, a very effective continuous improvement approach is Kaizen—“change for the best” or “good change.”

Kaizen is a Lean methodology that includes a set of activities applied continuously to all functions in an organization. What sets Kaizen apart from other improvement methodologies is that it involves all employees in the organization—from the CEO to the front line workers.

And it is easy to apply in any type of organization and to all processes within the organization.

Kaizen originates in Japanese businesses, but its influence since the Second World War is worldwide. The reason is simple: Kaizen humanizes the workplace by involving all employees to spot and eliminate waste in business processes. The process is transparent and inclusive of all those involved in the process: from suppliers to customers to employees to all other stakeholders.

The continuous improvement from Kaizen is a daily process of evaluating workflow and eliminating waste on the spot. In many organizations bogged down with policies, directives, and other “checking” mechanisms, workflow is slow and wasteful. But with Kaizen, eliminating waste directly targets these checking mechanisms to improve efficiency and productivity, enabling a faster workflow.

Another benefit of Kaizen is that usually only small improvements are delivered. Over time, these small improvements add up to big improvements because many (all) processes are involved throughout the organization. And this compound productivity improvement means huge savings in time and money for the organization—systematically replacing inefficient practices with customer value-adding practices is a win-win for all.

Kaizen replaces the command-and-control mid-twentieth Century models of improvement programs. Because changes to processes are carefully monitored by those who directly work in the process, Kaizen’s continuous improvement is sustainable. In addition, changes are typically done on a smaller scale, so it is easier to monitor and sustain improvements in the long term.

While Kaizen events are usually week-long blitzes of improvement and limited in scope, issues identified at one event are very useful in informing subsequent improvement events. This type of “paying it forward” approach of “plan-do-check-act” helps maintain a cycle of continuous improvement in all of the processes in the organization.

What is also interesting, but perhaps not surprising, Kaizen has evolved into personal development principles because of its simplicity. Check out Robert Maurer’s book on this topic: One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.

The Problem with Problems

Have you ever had one of those days when everything seems to be a problem? Your children are late for school, you miss the bus, and as you arrive at work, you realize that you forgot your meeting notes at home.

On top of that, two of your employees call in sick and before you get a chance to browse your e-mail inbox, your spouse calls asking if you can pick up your son from school because he’s sick. OMG, right?

If you determine that the above scenario qualifies as a problem(s) (i.e., one of “those” days!), you are using what experts call “deficit thinking.” That is, by focusing on problems, our plans of action will be concerned with fixing the problem or correcting the “deficit.” This kind of thinking can be seen not only in our personal lives, but in our organizations, as well.

Consider this: If we spend the majority of our time focusing on what is wrong with our organization, we can overlook what is right. And every organization has a mix of right and wrong. But organizations that look at what is right or what is working well, are able to shift their concerns to create more opportunities for success.

This “appreciative inquiry” approach energizes, motivates, and helps organizations emphasize its strengths rather than its weaknesses. In contrast, deficit thinking zaps our energy, de-motivates, and when one is only focusing on problems, all that can be seen are weaknesses.

This is not to say that organizations should ignore the problems or that problems will go away through appreciative inquiry. Problems must be resolved as they arise. If not, they can multiply like viruses. There is a time and place for both appreciative inquiry and deficit thinking, with the latter being extremely useful for immediate resolutions.

There are several things that organizations can do to fix problems. The most important thing, however, is to distinguish problems from symptoms. If one works on correcting symptoms, then the problem never goes away. For example, kids being late for school, you missing the bus and forgetting your meeting notes are the symptoms—the problem is that you didn’t give yourself enough time to manage your morning.

Flipping the symptoms and problems on their heads, the fact that you were running late all morning gave you more time to spend with your children. Now that’s an opportunity worth cherishing.

In addition to the appreciative inquiry versus deficit thinking approaches to problems, another way to frame our “problems” is to use Stephen Covey’s 90-10 Principle. This principle says that we are in control of 90 percent of what happens in our lives because of the choices we make. We can choose to rush through life or take a leisurely pace. We can choose to react in anger when something goes wrong or look on the bright side.

The problem with problems isn’t a problem at all. It’s an opportunity to grow personally and to improve organizational effectiveness that, in turn, helps us learn innovative ways of handling problems. And in so doing, you might discover that you will have fewer problems to solve in the long term.

Resistance is Futile

For Star Trek fans, the title of this blog will feel familiar. The show’s alien species, the Borg, made the saying “resistance is futile” famous in popular culture. The saying is a core concept in the Borg’s quest for perfection through a forced assimilation of individuals.

These forced assimilations have no place in the real world, but sometimes organizational change initiatives might feel like the Borg is in control. It does not have to be this way.

When organizations undertake change initiatives, they are answering three questions:

  1. What to change?
  2. To what to change to?
  3. How to make the change happen?

The first two questions are typically easy to answer. It’s question three that usually stumps individuals and organizations. And it’s question three where resistance is usually most prevalent.

Resistance to change occurs when one or more “layers of resistance” are not addressed during the change process. These layers of resistance arise in any of the above questions (or phases) and involve inadequate resolution of one or more of the following situations :

  • Lack of agreement on the problem
  • Lack of agreement on a possible direction for a solution
  • Lack of agreement that the solution will truly address the problem
  • Concern that the solution will lead to new undesirable side effects (“Yes, but…”)
  • Lack of a clear path around obstacles blocking the solution
  • Lack of follow-through even after agreement to proceed with the solution (unverbalized fear or concerns)

When there is resistance to change, astute leaders take time to address the layers of resistance to gain (or re-gain) support for change. They do this by demonstrating a whole-system view to problem root cause and solutions. Francis S. Patrick of Focused Performance shares excellent solutions for resistance to change by applying Theory of  Constraints Thinking Processes.

In a nutshell, Patrick uses sufficiency and necessity logic as well as tree diagrams to address each layer of resistance. For example, “If…then…because…” explains why situations exist or why we believe particular actions will result in certain outcomes. Further, using “In order to…, we must…,” he associates requirements with desired outcomes.

The thinking tools are an excellent way to encourage collaboration and dialogue, resulting in common sense outcomes for all participants. They also help link the three questions of change into a seamless process that provide meaningful and powerful improvements in the organization.

By using Theory of Constraints thinking to implement change, not only is resistance eliminated, but individuals will not feel as if resistance is futile. Nor will assimilation feel like such a bad thing!

Interpersonal Communication and Productivity

Stephen Covey got it right—Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Many of us forget the importance of truly trying to understand the speaker before offering up our comments. Without this understanding, we set ourselves up for ineffective interpersonal communication.

What happens when we don’t understand the message? We jump to conclusions and we misdiagnose. This is like diagnosing symptoms as problems, rather than getting to the root of the symptoms to find the problems. Our tendency to rush to fix what’s on the surface can get us into trouble. This is why communication is so important.

Reading, writing, speaking, and listening—these are the basic ways in which we communicate. If we do not understand, really understand the message; then we are in danger of losing our work effectiveness and productivity. In fact, one of the top reasons that employees leave companies is due to their relationships with their supervisors. Employees who feel heard and understood have more productive relationships.

To improve your productivity and, as a result, the organization’s productivity, you need to listen to the speaker first. This is counter to what we normally expect; i.e., to be understood. But it’s an iterative process. If we make the effort first to understand, it follows that the speaker will also make the effort to understand our point of view.

To help you improve your listening-for-understanding skills, here are ten suggestions (adapted from Business Communication Today by Bovee, Courtland, & Thill):

  1. Minimize both internal and external distractions. Close windows, doors, turn your chair, and adjust the environment as much as possible to really focus on the speaker.
  2. Adjust your listening to the situation. If you’re listening to instructions from your boss, you will want to pay closer attention than if you’re listening to the local sports or news cast.
  3. Use nonverbal communication to enforce listening. To show the speaker that you are listening and understanding, nod or shake your head, use facial expressions, and adjust your posture. Making eye contact is also important.
  4. Selectively remember the most important points. Use mental imagery or write down the important points, so that you don’t forget them.
  5. Demonstrate empathy. If a friend or colleague is discussing their problem with you, show them that you understand and empathize with what they’re experiencing.
  6. Do not provide advice unless asked. Not everyone wants advice when they tell you something. Only give advice if asked to do so.
  7. Don’t interrupt. Allow the speaker to finish before providing your point of view or asking questions.
  8. Don’t prejudge the message or the messenger. You can learn something from everyone. Keep an open mind.
  9. Focus on the subject. Train yourself to concentrate even when the topic is not very interesting.
  10. Do not overreact. If someone is presenting a topic that you’re passionate about, curb your emotions and present your points calmly. You will gain credibility if you keep your emotions in check.

Communication is the most important skill in life. If you truly understand the speaker and the speaker feels you have made a connection, then a trusting relationship is established and communication becomes freer. This allows you to cultivate better relationships at work; leading to more effective and productive results for all.

Letting Go

When was the last time you tried something new? How did it make you feel? If you’re adventurous, you probably felt thrilled. If you’re fearful, you are probably still wondering if the experience was worth the risk. So it is with organizations. Adventurous (or proactive) organizations thrive; the fearful (or reactive) survive—just barely.

Organizations (and individuals) that cannot let go of “dead ideas” are doomed to failure. Think about how many processes your organization manages every day. How many of these processes are preventing you and your staff from being maximally productive? Why aren’t the processes updated? Is it because everyone is so overworked that there is no time to address the issue?

If there is no time now to address the issue, then when? Constantly relegating issues to the backburner is like clinging to the old ways in the hope that the old ways will somehow magically reinvent themselves. These old ways are nothing more than dead ideas. And there is no place for dead ideas in productive organizations.

The sad news is that this way of thinking is not confined to individuals or the executive boardroom. Governments also think this way. This inability to let go of tired thinking is decaying everyone and everything.

Much has been written about change management because change is difficult to accomplish (think about changing just one of your habits—it takes at least three months of solid effort to build a new habit). But what seems to be coming through in organizations is that for change to occur, all employees need to be onboard. This requires changing old ways of thinking.

So how do we let go of old ways of thinking, of dead ideas? According to Matt Miller, there are three steps.

  1. Identify the ideas that matter. Since we can’t boil the ocean, pick the projects or ideas that will really make a profoundly positive impact on your organization or your life. These ideas will typically be strategic—those “sacred cow” ideas that no one has dared question until now.
  2. Understand each dead idea’s “story.” This comes down to identifying the root cause. How did this process become so entrenched with sub-processes? Why did this process seem to make sense in the first place? By understanding the root of the idea, it’s much easier to discern an action for change.
  3. Reach for new ways of thinking. Don’t dismiss ideas because they seem counterintuitive. If they seem counterintuitive, this may be a sign of how skewed our thinking has become; entrenched with only one way of doing things. Brainstorm. Look at possibilities. By reaching for new ways of thinking, we expand our minds.

In the end, we owe it to ourselves and our organizations to continuously improve and grow. By shedding old ways of doing things and inventing and implementing new concepts, we all thrive. Don’t get stuck in an outdated paradigm just because it’s been there all along.